Thursday, July 21, 2016

Truth or Consequences

Click the arrow to watch the Republican convention's Apollo 11 video and Eileen Collins' speech.

I believe program cancellation decisions that are made by bureaucracies behind closed doors without input by the people are divisive, damaging, cowardly, and many times more expensive in the long run.

— Former NASA Astronaut Eileen Collins
House Science Committee Testimony, February 25, 2016

Perhaps our first clue that retired NASA Space Shuttle commander Eileen Collins distorts reality to fit her political ambitions should have been when she uttered these words during her Congressional testimony last February.

Collins was referring to the cancellation of the botched Constellation program. The cancellation was proposed as part of the Obama administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget submitted to Congress in February 2010.

In her testimony, Collins falsely claimed that the decision was made “behind closed doors without input by the people.”

That's clearly untrue.

As it prepared to take office in January 2009, the Obama transition team sought to meet with NASA and Constellation executives to review the project.

The team was stonewalled, as documented by Lori Garver, a member of that team who would later be appointed NASA's first second female deputy administrator.

UPDATE July 22, 2016 — Lori Garver contacted me to note that Shana Dale was the first female NASA deputy administrator, appointed by President George W. Bush in September 2005. I've corrected the error.

Garver wrote in an April 2016 Space News guest column that her team received “a chilly reception” from NASA executive management when they began inquiring about Constellation, the Ares I booster and the Orion crew capsule. A September 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report had warned:

NASA faces disparate challenges in defining the scope and cost of [Space Shuttle Program (SSP)] transition and retirement activities. Because the Constellation program is still finalizing its requirements, the agency does not yet know the full extent of SSP property it needs to retain or what the full cost of the transition effort will be. In addition, NASA faces other challenges that further hamper the agency’s efforts to manage transition activities and develop firm estimates of SSP transition and retirement scope and cost.

That was the latest in a series of poor reviews the Constellation program received from the GAO during the Bush administration.

Garver wrote that, when her team met with a contractor working on an analysis of Constellation, “Our detailed questions were met with nervousness and little eye contact. We later learned that NASA leadership had heard about our planned meeting and preemptively told them not to share the Ares results with us.”

Motivated by the lack of cooperation from the outgoing administration, in May 2009 President Obama created the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. According to the committee's web site, this was to be “an independent review of planned U.S. human space flight activities with the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space.”

Contrary to Ms. Collins' false claims, the committee held many meetings in public. Click here for the public meeting schedule. Among the hearing sites were public meetings held in the communities of three space centers — Cocoa Beach, Huntsville and Houston.

(I personally attended the Cocoa Beach hearing.)

If you scroll down on the Meetings page to Public Meetings, you can click on each public meeting to find a link where you can watch for yourself the videos of each meeting.

You can also watch all the final deliberations in August 2009.

Click the arrow to watch retired astronaut Sally Ride's testimony to the committee.

Two retired astronauts were on the committee, Sally Ride and Leroy Chiao.

The committee issued its final report in October 2009. Click here to download the report PDF.

The report began:

The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.

Committee chair Norm Augustine testified in September 2009 before both houses of Congress to present the group's preliminary findings. Click here to watch his September 15, 2009 testimony to the House Science Committee. Click here to watch his September 16, 2009 testiomony before the Senate Space Subcommittee.

On September 25, 2009, the GAO issued yet another report critical of Constellation. This one warned that Constellation lacked “a sound business case” and had yet to resolve significant design problems.

So the track record is clear that Constellation's many failures were public, as were the reasons for its cancellation.

The irony is that the NASA Administrator in charge of Constellation, Michael Griffin, sat to Collins' right during their February 2016 testimony, giving his own spin on reality.

Ms. Collins' remarks were largely forgotten until the Republican National Committee announced July 14 that she would address the Republican National Convention, where Donald Trump formally would be chosen as the party's presidential nominee.

The insular space advocacy community reacted in social media. Some were delighted that space would have a small voice at the convention. Others were delighted her achievement as the first Space Shuttle commander would give more credibility to Mr. Trump's campaign.

And others, including those critical of Trump's frequent disparaging comments about women, were outraged.

Lori Garver posted a tweet on Twitter that stated:

Shocked Eileen is supporting this anti-science misogynist. Sorry her legacy is now co-opted by self-interested men.

Many tweeters posted their agreement with Garver's view, but retired astronauts Kevin Ford and Clay Anderson attacked the former deputy administrator for criticizing their colleague.

Garver deleted the tweet, but stood by her view that Collins' appearance was inappropriate.

When Ms. Collins spoke last night, she was preceded by a video clip promoting the 47th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the astronaut corps as an example of American exceptionalism.

So when you look to the heavens tonight, take a minute to thank God for each and every one of them. And say an extra prayer that the U.S. will soon reclaim its rightful place as the leader in space exploration.

The invocation of a deity aside, the narrative claims that the United States is not the global leader in space exploration.

In her subsequent remarks, Collins agreed.

In 2011, the Space Shuttle program ended. The last time the United States launched our own astronauts from our own soil was over five years ago. We must do better than that.

What Collins failed to disclose to her audience was that the decision to retire Shuttle was announced in January 2004 by President George W. Bush based on the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She also failed to disclose that the “gap” during which the United States would rely on Russia for International Space Station access was part of that early 2004 announcement.

The Vision Sand Chart. Click to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

Then-NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe presented the Vision Sand Chart to the Senate Science Committee on January 28, 2004. It showed a four-year gap between the end of Shuttle and the first flight of the “Crew Exploration Vehicle,” which eventually evolved into Orion.

A January 30, 2004 article on Page 1 of Florida Today reported that NASA would use Soyuz for crew rotations through the end of the Shuttle program. The article's headline was, “Shuttle's Role as Taxi May End.” The article stated:

Some U.S. astronauts, including current space station commander Michael Foale, said they prefer flying on the Soyuz because it has a crew escape system not present on the Shuttles.

Kennedy Space Center experienced a six-year gap between the final mission of the Apollo era, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, and the first Shuttle flight in April 1981. KSC infrastructure needed to be retooled for the new program.

The same has happened at KSC since Shuttle ended in 2011, but this time center management has had to overhaul infrastructure that in some cases was a half-century old.

For the first time in its history, KSC is now a multi-user spaceport, which means it will never again experience a gap.

Nor did Ms. Collins tell her audience about the commercial crew program, which the Obama administration funded in Fiscal Year 2011 after years of going unfunded by the Bush administration.

If Congress had given the administration the funding it requested, NASA astronauts were scheduled to fly again on U.S. systems by the end of 2015. Congress chose instead to cut Obama's commercial crew funding requests by 62% over Fiscal Years 2011-2013, extending U.S. reliance on Russia by two years. Those cuts were largely bipartisan.

Collins concluded:

We need leadership that will make America's space program first again.

Implicit in that statement is her belief that the United States is not first.

She did not mention by what criteria she comes to that conclusion.

Measured by budgets, NASA's FY16 budget is $19.3 billion.

An accurate number for Russia is hard to come by. One article states that for FY14 it was $4.8 billion. A July 21, 2016 Moscow Times article reports that economic sanctions imposed on Russia for the Ukraine invasion have reduced the nation's ten-year Roscosmos budget commitment to about $20 billion, or about $2 billion per year.

The China space program is murkier, as it's intertwined with military spending. Their technology is improving, but their capability is roughly where the United States was in the 1960s.

Europe, Japan and Canada rely on the United States for ISS transportation, using one American seat out of three in exchange for U.S. use of their ISS laboratories and the Canadian robot arms.

That $19.3 billion NASA number doesn't include the billions of dollars being invested by U.S. industry in commercial space. A January 2016 Tauri Group report found that, “More venture capital ($1.8 billion) was invested in space in 2015 than in the prior 15 years, combined.” Private companies SpaceX and Orbital ATK deliver cargo to the ISS using robotic craft that don't risk lives like Ms. Collins' Shuttle did. A third, Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser, will join the market by the end of the decade.

SpaceX and Boeing are in uncrewed tests with 21st Century craft that will deliver astronauts to ISS from American soil, despite the best efforts of Congress to extend reliance on Russia. The first crewed test flight on paper is a SpaceX Dragon scheduled for August 2017. NASA and SpaceX will partner on a Red Dragon mission to send the capsule on a mission to make a soft landing on Mars. It will be the first crew-rated vehicle to land on Mars.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage lands on the company's drone ship. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.

SpaceX has spent 100% of its own money to develop a Falcon 9 booster that can land on a pad or on a drone ship at sea. The Falcon Heavy, three Falcon 9 boosters in tandem, will become the most powerful launch vehicle on the planet.

Bigelow Aerospace, using 100% private investment money, developed a prototype expandable habitat now being tested at ISS. The first full-size B330 modules are being built now in Las Vegas, with the intent of attaching them to ISS circa 2020 for lease to customer nations. These habitats are projected to be the next-generation space stations that will orbit Earth, position at LaGrange points, orbit the Moon and Mars as way stations, and serve as a base on those worlds.

I'm waiting for Ms. Collins to tell me what other nation on Earth has these capabilities.

Neither did Collins mention the Space Launch System, imposed by Congress on NASA as part of the 2010 deal to cancel Constellation. When operational, it will be the most powerful vehicle by thrust on Earth, but Congress failed to tell NASA what to do with it. NASA is still trying to answer that question on its own. Some believe SLS will be too expensive to operate under NASA's projected budgets for the 2020s. But it's a program built the way Collins wants when she testified before Congress in February.

Many believe that Eileen Collins disgraced her legacy by appearing at a four-day event anointing a misogynist as the Republican candidate for President.

Multiple media outlets report that she dropped a line from her speech where she was to endorse Mr. Trump. The Syracuse Post-Standard has a complete text of the prepared speech. It was to have ended:

We need leadership that will challenge every American to ask, “What's next?” We need leadership that will make America's space program first again. We need leadership that will make America first again. That leader is Donald Trump.

Thank you and God bless the United States of America!

The line she reportedly dropped was, “That leader is Donald Trump.”

Ms. Collins can explain for herself why she dropped that line.

In my opinion, she owes an apology to President Obama, the members of the Augustine committee, NASA Administrator (and former Shuttle commander) Charlie Bolden, Lori Garver, and the rest of NASA management for calling them cowards.

She also owes a retraction and an apology to the millions of Americans she misled last night.

Collins' speech at best will be a footnote in some future space history book. Historians may note her speech as an example of someone who chose to align herself with the wrong side of future history.

Click the arrow to watch the February 25, 2016 House Science Committee hearing. Collins' remarks begin at the 37 minute 25 second mark.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The SpaceX-9 Pre-Game Show

Click the arrow to watch the media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

NASA held a media event this afternoon to review the early Monday scheduled launch for the SpaceX-9 commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station.

The static test fire was at 8:30 AM EDT today. According to Hans Koenigsmann of SpaceX, so far everything appears nominal.

If Monday's 12:45 AM EDT launch is postponed, the next attempt will be around midnight Eastern time Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

Click here for more from James Dean of Florida Today.

UPDATE July 17, 2016 8:00 PM EDT — NASA held another media event today to discuss the experiment payloads on SpaceX-9. The event was open only to NASA social media participants.

Click the arrow to watch the media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

Friday, July 15, 2016

NASA Docks SpaceX

Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana inspects IDA-2. Image source: NASA.

SpaceX is scheduled to make its next cargo delivery to the International Space Station early Monday, around 12:42 AM EDT. After launching the SpaceX-9 Dragon, the Falcon 9 booster will attempt to land at the Cape's former Launch Complex 13 about ten minutes after launch.

For NASA's commercial crew program, this is one launch where failure is not an option.

The two commercial crew capsules, which could arrive at ISS as soon as late 2017, require NASA's new International Docking Adapter (IDA) to dock with the station.

The first adapter was aboard the SpaceX-7 flight that was destroyed 139 seconds after launch on June 28, 2015.

NASA built two IDAs. The agency had planned to install one on each of the station’s two open Pressurized Mating Adapters (PMA), both of which are connected to the Harmony module. IDA-2 is aboard SpaceX-9.

A new third IDA, built from spare parts, is scheduled for delivery to NASA in March 2017. It will replace the lost IDA-1. It's scheduled for ISS delivery in February 2018.

If something goes wrong with Monday's SpaceX-9 launch, the loss of IDA-2 will push back NASA's ability to dock its new crew ships at ISS, and extend further reliance on Russia.

On June 28, NASA's Office of the Inspector General issued a report reviewing the SpaceX-7 loss, how it affected the agency, and evaluation of the SpaceX response to the incident.

According to the OIG report, NASA suffered a financial loss of $118 million from the incident, including the loss of IDA-1. The agency lost $51 million when the Orbital-3 mission was destroyed seconds after launch in October 2014.

The report states:

The most significant item lost during the SPX-7 mission was the first of two Docking Adapters necessary to support upcoming commercial crew missions. Although NASA had planned to have two Adapters installed on the Station before the first commercial crew demonstration mission scheduled for May 2017, it is now likely there will be only one installed in time for these missions. Having only one Adapter means that a commercial crew vehicle will not be able to dock with the ISS if technical issues arise with the single available docking port. ISS Program officials stated that they plan to have the replacement Adapter installed before regular commercial crew rotations begin.

The first-round commercial cargo contracts, known as Commercial Resupply Services 1 (CRS-1), “place much of the risk associated with an unsuccessful mission on NASA.”

However, this is not unusual for Government contracts relating to space operations given the associated expense and risks, and the limited number of capable contractors. Due to the relationship between risk and price, shifting more risk to the contractor would likely increase contract price. To this end, the CRS-1 contracts do not require SpaceX or Orbital to re-fly failed missions or carry upmass from a failed mission on future flights, nor do they make the companies liable for any cargo destroyed as a result of a launch failure or other anomaly. While, as previously noted, if SpaceX or Orbital fail to deliver cargo to the Station the companies forfeit any payment tied to the associated milestones, NASA is not entitled to recover previous milestone payments associated with the launch. Furthermore, the Agency can only recover milestone payments it has made toward missions not yet flown if it terminates the contract for cause — known as “termination for cause.”

After the SpaceX-7 accident, in December 2015 NASA negotiated modifications to the SpaceX’s CRS-1 contract to add five additional flights — SpaceX-16 through SpaceX-20 — at discounted prices.

The report also includes information about other programs not immediately relevant to the SpaceX CRS missions.

According to the report, the current SpaceX commercial crew schedule is to fly an uncrewed test flight to ISS in May 2017. The first crewed flight is scheduled for August 2017.

A table on page 4 (page 10 of the PDF) compares the capabilities of cargo Dragon, Orbital ATK Cygnus, and the cargo version of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser. SNC won a contract earlier this year to start ISS cargo deliveries by the end of the decade. Dream Chaser will be able to deliver more upmass to ISS (an estimated 5,500 kg) than Orbital ATK (3,500 kg) or SpaceX (3,310 kg).

Page 8 (page 14 of the PDF) details both SpaceX and NASA conclusions as to the cause of the SpaceX-7 loss.

Following the SPX-7 failure, SpaceX recovered parts of the Falcon 9 rocket and, through telemetry analysis and other testing, determined the most probable cause for the mishap was a strut assembly failure in the rocket’s second stage. Specifically, the failed strut assembly released a helium tank inside the liquid oxygen tank, causing a breach in the oxygen tank’s dome and the release of gas that in turn disabled the avionics and caused release of the Dragon 1 capsule and break-up of the launch vehicle. SpaceX completed an extensive analysis of the SPX-7 failure, consulted with NASA and the United States Air Force (USAF) regarding their analysis, and provided a mishap report and Return to Flight Plan to the FAA and NASA in November 2015. The company’s post-mishap testing of strut parts from the same purchase order as those used on SPX-7 found material flaws due to casting defects, “out of specification” materials, and improper heat treatment.

NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) conducted a separate, independent review of the failure, briefing its results to senior NASA leadership on December 18, 2015. LSP did not identify a single probable cause for the launch failure, instead listing several “credible causes.” In addition to the material defects in the strut assembly SpaceX found during its testing, LSP pointed to manufacturing damage or improper installation of the assembly into the rocket as possible initiators of the failure. LSP also highlighted improper material selection and such practices as individuals standing on flight hardware during the assembly process, as possible contributing factors.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Blue's Origin, Part 2

Artist's concepts of the future Blue Origin factory at Exploration Park. Click the images to view at a larger size. Image source: Blue Origin.

Blue Origin released on June 28 via email artists' concepts of its new rocket assembly facility at Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park. Blue founder Jeff Bezos said he hopes the site will be operational by the end of 2017.

The mail also included an undated image from Aerial Innovations showing the site now as it's being cleared.

Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Aerial Innovations via Blue Origin.

I drove that road on July 2, from left to right in the above image, to give you a closer look at the site's progress. Needless to say, it's rained in recent days.

All below images are copyright © 2016 The images may be used elsewhere with attribution. Click the image to view at a larger size.

Previous articles:

June 7, 2016 “Blue's Origin, Part 1”